Sofia Kovalevskaya

Sofia KovalevskayaOn this day in 1850, the great mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya was born. She made important contributions to analysis and differential equations. We will not talk about her work in math. This is because I still greatly struggle with analysis. Her work with differential equations — notably, classical mechanics — I do understand, but it would be (1) a lot of work for me to write; and (2) boring for you to read. Luckily, she lived a colorful life.

She showed an aptitude for mathematics very young and so her parents encouraged it and hired her a tutor. But women weren’t allowed in university in Russia at that time, so she had to go out of the country. But that was more involved than you might think. She needed her husband’s written permission to do that, so she pretended to be the wife of paleontologist Vladimir Kovalevsky. (Despite never actually marrying, they spent the rest of his life together.) And the two of them were off to Germany and then England (where he hung out with Darwin and she hung with George Eliot) and then to France and back to Germany, where she received her PhD at the age of 24 from the University of Göttingen. She was the first woman in Europe to be given the degree.

She and Vladimir struggled for the next decade, doing things like building houses and electrifying street lights. In 1883, Vladimir committed suicide. But the following year, Sofia finally got an academic position in Sweden. Things were pretty good from then on, although not that good because she was a woman. In addition to her mathematics and physics work, she wrote plays, a novel, and an autobiography. And then she died of influenza at the age of 41.

Happy birthday Sofia Kovalevskaya!

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